Detroit Athletic Club leaves Fieger out in cold

Laura Berman
The Detroit News

Geoffrey Fieger, the famously combative lawyer, fully expected the Detroit Athletic Club to accept his application for membership when he submitted it last December. "It never occurred to me," he says, that he wouldn't be welcomed.

But Fieger, whose celebrity stems in part from his willingness to challenge authority and the status quo, didn't pass muster with the elite, century-old downtown Detroit club. On Thursday, he said, he learned that he would not be allowed to join.

"I'm not really a club person," Fieger said. He was surprised when he learned of the club's elaborate vetting procedure, which includes securing an official sponsor and six letters of recommendation from members.

Yes, gone are the days when being a woman, African-American, Jew, or a member of any racial, ethnic or religious group could be grounds for rejection at the club.Social status lines have worn so thin at the century-old club that "getting in" is presumed to be a fairly automatic process for anyone with connections at the club.

All of this makes Fieger's predicament a puzzle, especially to him.

"I am a family person," says Fieger, who is married and has young sons. "I have been a Michigan gubernatorial candidate. I am an upstanding citizen."

But over the years, Fieger has insulted and defied a legion of upstanding citizens, from former governor John Engler to Supreme Court Justice Robert Young. If he has friends, he also has enemies. The club's bylaws allow one board member's objection to rule.

After his name was posted online and in the club as one of 26 prospective new resident members, Fieger's DAC friends say, the club's board of directors received several letters opposing his membership. He says he heard "there were at least 20 letters" opposing him.

The club's congenial general manager, Ted Gillary, declined to comment about "club business."

Two weeks ago, one of Fieger's sponsors, Art Van Elslander, the furniture magnate, told Fieger that he'd been asked by a club official to withdraw Fieger's name and — barring that — to ask Fieger to withdraw, Fieger says. Through Diane Charles, an ArtVan spokeswoman, Van Elslander confirmed the club's decision to bar Fieger from joining.

Another sponsor, Howard Linden, says he too was asked to withdraw his support of Fieger and, like Van Elslander, declined.

"I wouldn't have signed the letter (of support) if I didn't mean it," said Linden, a probate lawyer who has known Fieger for decades. "I love the guy."

"Someone said, 'Of course there are people who don't want him in there: he's an a-hole,' " says DAC member Jules Olsman, who voluntarily wrote in support of Fieger's membership. "But there are probably 50 members who fit that description."

After being asked to withdraw, Fieger considered, briefly, abandoning his bid for membership. "But then, I went home and Keenie (his wife) had an old movie on, Gentleman's Agreement." That's the one where Gregory Peck pretends to be Jewish in the 1940s, and decides to walk into an exclusive club and "look them in the eye."

"So I decided that's what I would do: go down there and look them in the eye."

In retrospect, he says, the process "is a ruse. They knew they weren't going to let me in two weeks ago." Fieger cites the club's "long history of racism, sexism and anti-Semitism," and says, "nothing there has changed." (While neither African-American nor female, Fieger is half-Jewish.) In fact, the club is one of the most diverse among Metro Detroit's private clubs.

The prospective members meeting was last Friday, at lunch time. "He was quite pleasant," recalls Olsman, a lawyer and DAC member who was at last week's aspiring members event because his son is joining. "He talked to a number of the board members."

Fieger said when he asked board members at the meeting about the request that he withdraw, they "acted as if they knew nothing about it."

The club's rules don't explicitly describe how prospective members can be rejected. The bylaws require new members to be notified by letter — but don't stipulate any response to those who aren't approved. In gentlemanly practice, though, it's the sponsor who is informed — not the snubbed non-member.

Fieger wanted to join the DAC after being surprised by how much he enjoyed visiting as a guest last summer. Before then, "I subscribed to the Groucho Marx philosophy that I don't want to belong to any club that will accept me as a member."

But, the story goes, Groucho Marx was clever enough to send a mocking resignation letter with that message, after the private Friar's Club admitted him.

Laura Berman is the Detroit News Metro columnist.